What to make of the peculiar situation unfolding just across the border in Tijuana, where U.S. Marine Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi languishes in solitary confinement for the crime of mistakenly crossing the border with his personal weapons in his truck on March 31?
Nothing to inspire confidence, for certain. In fact, Tahmooressi’s ordeal might just confirm many of our worst fears about the Obama administration.
The Tahmooressi story sounds more like a schlocky Hollywood script than a real-life tale. Its protagonist is a decorated Marine veteran of two tours of duty in Afghanistan, honorably discharged in 2012 and diagnosed with a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); he was moving to the San Diego area specifically for treatment of his PTSD. And Tahmooressi’s ordeal is mind-bogglingly unjust; he mistakenly crossed the border from San Ysidro, California, into Mexico because he missed an interstate exit that would have taken him to dinner with friends. Instead, the twenty-five-year old war hero wound up at a Mexican border station driving a pickup truck full of his possessions, which included two rifles and a pistol, plus ammunition.
Tahmooressi told the Mexican border guards he had the weapons in his truck and that he was not intending to enter Mexico but rather wished to turn around. He was detained for eight hours without counsel (a violation of his rights), the U.S. State Department was not notified of his detention and he was made to sign a document in Spanish, which he does not speak, confessing to the crime. He’s been charged with possession of “military” weapons, which could land him in prison for up to twenty-one years. Tahmooressi was beaten in the first detention facility he was placed in, and subsequently attempted to escape. He also apparently attempted suicide by stabbing himself in the neck with a broken light bulb. Since then, the conditions of his imprisonment have improved, but he is not getting mental health treatment. His mother, Jill Tahmooressi, has said that in her conversations with Andrew his affect has been “flat,” which is a dangerous sign his disease is worsening amid the constant stress of incarceration.
It’s now September, which means Tahmooressi will have spent six months in a Mexican prison by month’s end essentially for missing his exit on Interstate 5. His case has gained increasing attention and outrage among the American people, as Congressmen Duncan Hunter of California and Ted Poe of Texas have proposed legislation aimed at securing his release and twenty state legislators from California hand-delivered a letter in August to Enrique Pena Nieto, Mexico’s president, demanding his release when Nieto visited Sacramento to meet with Governor Jerry Brown. Tahmooressi’s cause has also been taken up by Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, and TV talk show host Montel Williams, himself a military veteran. Attention is mounting.
The satisfactory resolution of cases like Tahmooressi’s represent the non-partisan, non-political responsibility of an American president. In fact, the president is required by law, specifically 22 U.S. Code Section 1732, to prioritize and dispose of such situations when they occur. As that statute reads:
Whenever it is made known to the President that any citizen of the United States has been unjustly deprived of his liberty by or under the authority of any foreign government, it shall be the duty of the President forthwith to demand of that government the reasons of such imprisonment; and if it appears to be wrongful and in violation of the rights of American citizenship, the President shall forthwith demand the release of such citizen, and if the release so demanded is unreasonably delayed or refused, the President shall use such means, not amounting to acts of war and not otherwise prohibited by law, as he may think necessary and proper to obtain or effectuate the release; and all the facts and proceedings relative thereto shall as soon as practicable be communicated by the President to Congress.
Furthermore, even as a matter of crass politics it is in everyone’s interest to address this situation. Tahmooressi did two tours of Marine duty in Afghanistan, which means he fought not just for America but for Obama as his commander-in-chief; the country expects that Obama would return the favor and fight for Tahmooressi. And for Mexico, Tahmooressi is a major political liability; Nieto was protested by 300 people in his Sacramento visit, including by members of the California Assembly with the media in tow, and there is a growing cry for a tourist boycott of Mexico until Tahmooressi is released.
Tourism, along with oil and gas and remittances from the United States, is one of Mexico’s top three sources of hard currency. Mexico cannot afford a tourist boycott from the American people.
So getting Tahmooressi out of that Mexican jail and into the mental health treatment he desperately needs is in everyone’s interest. Why isn’t it happening?
Since 2008, Congress has appropriated $2.1 billion to help Mexico deepen its commitment to the rule of law. It is foolish and hypocritical to allow Mexico to ignore the very justice system we’ve encouraged it to create. One phone call from Obana to Nieto ought to be enough to escure Tahmooressi’s release.
If Nieto has some consideration he’d take in return, without giving away the store Obama could easily do so. If Nieto isn’t so inclined, Obama has an endless supply of sticks on offer – like, for example, launching a federal investigation into remittances from America back to Mexico with an eye toward catching as much cash being sent home by the drug cartels. Or issuing travel advisories aimed at draining American tourism from Mexican hotspots like Cancun, Cozumel and Cabo San Lucas because of what we suddenly see as an uptick in “gang activity” there. Obama’s leverage to secure Tahmooressi’s release is almost absolute.
And it’s in his interest to spring Tahmooressi. The case is high-profile enough by this point that should the administration cause him to be released Obama’s credibility would improve with the American people. His approval rating would tick up. His prestige would tick up. The perception of his competence and ability to get things done would tick up. The electoral prospects for his party in the November midterms would tick up. The morale of the American people would tick up. The pushback against Obama’s affinity for a more activist federal government might slightly abate.
That he refuses to get involved despite so obvious a brief for doing so—not to mention a legal duty—isn’t just a reflection of his incompetence. It looks more sinister than that. Tahmooressi is a white, male, heterosexual gun owner. The reader will forgive this columnist for thinking that if this were otherwise, his case would enjoy more currency with the president. Right now it looks as if Obama, who has just sent the Justice Department to Ferguson, Missouri, is refusing to act as president of the entire country, intervening only on behalf of those who belong to his party’s constituency groups.
And it fuels the idea that his presidential failure isn’t just what happens when you elected a community organizer to the most powerful job in the world—it’s what happens when someone with that job, unqualified or not, fails on purpose.